Black Hills Institute
Neal Larson and Peter Larson, founders of the Black Hills Institute, using hand picks to remove the 30 feet of overburden above the T-rex’s bone layer (under tarp, below).

After T-Rex Troubles, Dinosaurs Stay on the Rez

Christina Rose

For more than 150 years, outsiders have ventured onto tribal lands and helped themselves to fossils and dinosaur bones. Some, like a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, have brought fame if not fortune to those who sought to own them. After all these years, the tribes are now reclaiming their rightful property, but as the story of Sue proves, the journey is still not without its bumps.

In 1990, Sue Hendrickson came upon the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex that were beginning to “weather out” or emerge from hills on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Hendrickson was a volunteer at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota, and Peter Larson, one of the founders of the institute, said he paid Cheyenne River tribal member Maurice Williams $5,000 to collect the dinosaur from William’s trust land.

However, according to Darlene Williams, Maurice’s widow, the $5,000 was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. “I heard Maurice on the phone, they didn’t say anything about fossils. The $5,000 was not for removing fossils, but for digging on the land.

“When they found that on our property, Maurice told them it was trust land and the government had to be involved, but they took it anyway,” Williams said. “We had a lawyer write to them and they flat out said it was theirs and we had nothing to say about it. They sent us a letter and as much admitted they had taken it. But my husband knew all about trust status, and he kept everything in a file cabinet.” Laughing quietly, she added, “I guess they didn't know he was that kind of man.”

Things got even trickier after Sue was removed from the ground and brought to Hill City. “The federal government made a raid on the institute saying we violated the Antiquities Act. But we knew a lot about legal stuff, and the Antiquities Act did not apply. The act had been created as part of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] and was meant to protect human remains. But the law is fatally vague,” Larson told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Larson said the judge ruled that fossils are actually part of the ground, which meant the dinosaur was tribal land. “Everybody was trying to get it—Peter Larson, the federal government, but what it came down to is that it was Maurice’s land,” Williams said.


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